Portraiture and the Photographer’s Use of Light

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Photographer and author Frank Criccho states, “ The success of a photographic portrait depends as much on the photographer’s artistic and creative use of lighting techniques as it does on his or her skill with the camera.”

In an opposing remark during a recent conversation, a photographer told me that he didn’t have to worry about getting a flash for portrait photography and doubted he ever would, because he could just use a higher ISO, shoot multiple bursts, and fix everything in PhotoShop.

I don’t think that he is totally wrong, but his statement certainly demonstrates a lack of the basic understanding of how light impacts a subject’s face and how light can make the subject look younger, or older, or more glamorous, or down right unappealing.

I think in the race to purchase the latest hi-tech photographic marvel many photographers tend to forget about how lighting affects their subjects.

In my opinion, the goal for portrait photographers should always be to make the subject look his or her best, and provide an image that is flattering, and allows the person you are photographing to have a photo that impresses viewers.

One could say the responsibility lies with photographers, and not the subject, as to how good they look. Yes, I know in reality that isn’t the truth, but in my experience when one makes a bad photo of someone they will blame you, not themselves, if one makes a good photo they will thank you for capturing reality.

Many photographers just excitedly snap away without examining their subject, or posing them. Relying on luck and their subject’s talent to make that pleasing portrait, and pay little attention to how the light is making that person look.

Light and how a photographer uses it is very important. Too much contrast or side lighting shows lines and blemishes, whereas, on-camera flash, or bright, direct sunlight gives a flat, dimensionless, uninspired look.

To use the words of world-renowned photographer and writer, Joe Marvullo, “It is your ultimate decision, however, to determine what is “real” about that person and how to portray it in the photograph. You must successfully translate a distinct human personality in three-dimensional form into a two dimensional representation. This recorded image must come to life on it’s own. You, as an artist, must capture the “essence” of your subjects – their persona.”

Modern on-camera flashes are excellent if used correctly and creatively. Photographers can diffuse, bounce, and move the light off to the right or left, higher or lower, and modify that light using umbrellas, reflectors or softboxes to soften and control the direction and intensity.

I believe photography is all about the light. The lazy photographer just worries about exposure, where as the imaginative photographer pays attention, experiments, and practices creating portraits using light that are more than just documents of some person.  And as Marvullo suggests it is up to you, the artist, to capture the “essence” of your subject’s personality.

 

 

 

 

 

4 responses to “Portraiture and the Photographer’s Use of Light

  1. I’ve been behind a camera for quite a while and have learned to use light either natural of man made .. each time I do my upmost to control light entering the camera some times I’m very successful others not so good ..Light and the use of it is what keeps me trying for a better photograph..certainly I use Psh …but to a limited effect ..

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    • Yes, it all about using the light. Reflectors or flash…which ever fits the the situation best. Those that know me are very aware that for people or flowers I will use a flash if I can.

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